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In New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), an 18th-century ankle cuff unearthed in Manhattan’s Hanover Square is installed alongside a glimmering 1770 silver coffeepot. Not everyone arrived in New York City by choice, nor did they necessarily arrive at all. Nearby is a 17th-century Lenape war club, newly returned to the city after centuries in Sweden.
New York at Its Core opened November 18, filling 8,000 square feet of the MCNY first floor. It’s the first permanent exhibition at the museum, and the culmination of five years of research, as well as a decade-long $100 million renovation project. While the institution on the northeastern corner of Central Park is not geographically on the beaten tourist path, nor that of many New Yorkers, New York at Its Core is an ambitious experience that aims to be an accessible introduction to the inner core of the Big Apple. There is in fact an apple corer, a gargantuan early 20th-century metal device on loan from the collection of the Russ & Daughters appetizing store, as immigrant entrepreneur Joel Russ featured apples in his herring salad. Each of the roughly 450 artifacts on view, dating from Henry Hudson’s voyage in 1609 to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, is a fragment of a greater personal timeline in New York.
“Each object is an entry point into a whole thread that relates to the city’s history, and all of these threads together add up to a whole that begins to capture what New York is about,” Sarah Henry, deputy director and chief curator at MCNY, told Hyperallergic. “We believe New York is too multifaceted to ingest in a quick 20 minute run through an exhibition. We wanted to create something that would reward multiple visits, but still be appreciated with a single visit. Our goal is for people to come away having better understood New York.”
Part of that understanding isn’t just about the past, but what’s to come. The biggest of the exhibition’s three galleries is a flexible space called the Future City Lab, concentrating on the next 50 years of the city. A huge digital map, touchscreens, and an interactive streetscape-augmenting game fill the Lab, with the gallery design allowing for new data on population, climate change, and urban planning to update and alter the displays.
In the two galleries devoted to history, you can also find these multimedia aspects. A parade of silhouettes, and freestanding totems, introduce visitors to 75 individuals that influenced the city, including artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, anarchist Emma Goldman, writer and activist Wong Chin Foo, Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner, founding father Alexander Hamilton, poet Walt Whitman, hip-hop artist Jay Z, and a beaver, whose fur made for a very significant industry in the colonial era.
“It was a humbling and daunting and exciting task to think about how to instill the story of New York into our space, although obviously the complexity of New York is something you could spend a lifetime delving into and not get to the bottom of it,” Henry said. “For us, it was important to have a point of view and a lens through which to look at this story. Our question is what makes New York New York, and we boil it down to four words: money, density, diversity, and creativity.”
And all of these people and moments are basically presented on the same plane, even calamities like the September 11 attacks or the AIDS crisis, while addressed and explored, are not enshrined. Instead every broader event is distilled through a component of a human story. For example, rather than a didactic explanation of Boss Tweed’s catastrophic corruption, you can gaze at the glimmer of his T-shaped diamond cufflinks, bought with city money.
Calvert Vaux’s 1865 field drafting set, used to design landscapes like Central Park, is positioned by fragments of glass, pottery, and a button exhumed from the remains of Seneca Village, the African-American enclave displaced by the Manhattan greenspace. A small Halvah tin from the Sahadi family recalls the Little Syria neighborhood that thrived in the future site of the World Trade Center. There are no generic objects, each is specific to a person in the place that is New York City. And each emphasizes how there is no single story of New York, yet it’s that diversity, whether religious, ethnic, or economic, that makes the fertile seeds of a city that continues to grow.
New York at Its Core is now open at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue, East Harlem, Manhattan).